It's no secret that sound has a powerful effect on the human brain - including those of shoppers. For retailers, audio marketing is one of the most powerful ways to create positive emotions when people visit your store.
Music and interactive sound can make for a much more interesting visit to a shop. Whether it's smooth jazz drifting through the air, ocean sounds creating a vibrant ambiance, or direct messaging that only one person can hear, there's a huge range of audio marketing possibilities for business owners to up their game.
And it's not just for fun, either: the statistics back it up. Well-targeted audio experiences have a surprisingly big impact on retail sales. Audio is often overlooked in retail planning, but it doesn't have to be.
Below, we'll cover some of the best ways that brands can increase customer engagement and sales in their retail spaces. But first: why is sound so important in retail anyway?
Shopping in a retail store is a multi-sensory experience. Using your eyes and hands to assess information to make a purchase decision is standard practice.
It turns out that immersive experiences that cater for more than a single sense affect purchase decisions even more strongly.
Researchers at the Department of Food Science & Technology at Ohio State University studied a group of consumers' coffee preferences. One group was put in an isolated sensory booth and presented with different types of cold-brewed coffee. Another group was put in an 'immersive' environment: a virtual coffeehouse with the sights and sounds of a familiar café, as well as ambient scents of cinnamon rolls. The results:
"The data collected in the immersive testing environment were more discriminating and seemed to be a more reliable predictor of future product liking than the hedonic data collected in the sensory booth."
In short: being in an environment that looks, smells, and sounds like the kind of place you'd enjoy coffee means the subjects enjoy the coffee more. A follow-up study from the same lab confirmed this when they tried the opposite: providing irrelevant sounds, visuals, and smells decreased participants' enjoyment of the product.
It's almost impossible that sound alone is used in a retail context. Unless you're selling vinyl records, it's unlikely that the audio experience alone will tip the scales in your favor. Most shoppers will consider a product visually first of all. They might also pick it up and see how it feels, and give it a sniff if the scent is relevant.
For these reasons, audio is sometimes forgotten as a priority by retailers. But it's clear that audio enhances all of these other senses – to a significant degree.
It's been long known that background music playing within the retail environment improves the customer experience, and in some cases, increases sales.
One famous study found that classical music, in particular, was a winner in wine stores: it was observed that customers ended up spending more money with classical music playing in the background rather than popular top-40 hits. They didn't necessarily buy more wine, but they tended to choose more expensive wine, which shows there's more than one way that the use of music can shape a shopping decision.
Studies indicate that fast tempo music causes customers to spend less time in a store and buy less, while slow tempo music influences them to move more slowly, but buy more.
When there's music playing subtly in the background of a store, it does have a subliminal influence on shoppers' decision-making. But the type of music does have to be in context. Playing a Spotify playlist of classical music in the background of a skateboard store probably wouldn't lead to a similar increase in sales, and might even lower it. What's more, playing a certain genre of music in an area of the store it's not necessarily appropriate for could have a negative effect.
One example of this might be in a department store, where radically different retail areas might sit next to each other; if music appropriate for a childrens' toy section leaks through to the seniors' clothing section, it might do more harm than help.
Display screens are becoming more and more widespread through shop floors around the world.
Digital signage promoting products is now widespread with increasing display quality and thinner, more versatile screens which can be mounted in many different positions. They're a great way to convey more information (and more useful information) than static displays. They also function as replacements for staff when repeated queries pop up, freeing employees to focus on other tasks.
Because they're usually connected to integrated systems and apps, content can be changed in real-time, depending on different promotions, customer visits, events, and so on. They can show editorial material, news, promotional offers, advertisements, and customer information.
This is what Comptoir de l'Ours did with a set of Akoustic Arts directional speakers. Above the display screens, the audio feed was projected from our speakers towards the viewer. Other customers around the store could not hear this audio – only those in front of the screen. So the customers paying attention to the video could enjoy an engaging digital experience, but the quiet ambiance of the showroom wasn't disturbed. Likewise, books & entertainment retailer Cultura installed such speakers above ebook displays, to enhance the experience of perusing digital books, without making a disturbance in a quiet bookstore.
A study of digital signage in grocery stores by Indiana University's Kelley School of Business found that "shoppers are most responsive to messages that relate to the task at hand and their current need state, and least responsive to traditional brand messages." So, for example, customers waiting in line for the deli were more responsive to useful information, like announcements about new deli products, than other customers who were browsing the aisles.
And they work: one store mentioned in the study noticed an average sales lift of 14% across all advertisements, including a 25% lift in snacks & sweet sales.
The fact that the specific location of customers on the shop floor determines how receptive they are to messaging means that directional sound in retail is perfect for this kind of broadcast. Imagine those deli customers waiting in line were offered a special discount on bread to go with their meats – it's a tasty opportunity.
Different areas of the shop floor have different uses, and therefore benefit from different background sounds: it's no surprise that a soothing nature soundscape will make a hiking equipment zone more enjoyable to wander through.
But there are times when you need to put more effort into attracting wandering shoppers into a certain area: maybe it's where a promotion is located, or a place that usually has low traffic.
Digital signage is a great way to attract attention from the floor with dynamic content. But so is audio, and in particular: directional audio. Consider the case of Samsung's digital ad hoardings in Gare du Lyon, a busy train station in France.
Samsung worked with Akoustic Arts to bring the attention of commuters to its advertisements using directional speakers, without interfering with the regular station announcements. The spoken voiceover messages were perfectly intelligible even when broadcast from a 6-meter-high installation in a noisy train station.
For multi-story department stores or large showrooms with significant foot traffic, this could be a game-changing innovation for directing attention and increasing engagement.
Bringing a unified audio branding experience to your customer journey is an opportunity you might easily miss. This tip applies to any of the above scenarios where sound can be played.
If you already have sonic branding in your other marketing channels, like a jingle, slogan, or soundtrack, why not replicate it in your retail store? Audio branding can spark recognition, familiarity and comfort in an environment that might be new or overstimulating to a customer. By playing the same audio cues that you use in your video or podcast ads, you'll bring familiar sounds, music and even voices, creating more of an affinity to the products on display.
You should use sound to build your brand image in-store: while you could let employees choose their own music selections, why not use the opportunity to be more mindful of the values your brand conveys? If you've got one store playing rock music and another playing pop, your brand cohesion is going to suffer. Consistency is key.
For visually impaired people, audio guidance is crucial when visual signage is not suitable to help. When specific guidance is needed for a certain area in a store (like a place where navigation is difficult), localized or directional sound can play, letting people know how they can get assistance.
As well as complying with legislation for people with disabilities, audio technologies can make their store experience easier and more enjoyable. Induction loops are commonly used 'assistive listening devices' to improve the experience for shoppers with hearing impairments, too.
Here's a great guide from the UK Association of Convenience Stores to welcoming disabled customers into your retail store. According to the guide, at least 1 in 3 customers have some form of disability, so it's certainly worth making provisions for them. Solutions like the above may have direct impacts on your retail revenue, but will also enhance your brand by showing you're willing to welcome everyone and be inclusive.
By now you should understand how sound is important for retail marketing at each part of a customer's journey through your store. Whether you're looking to drive footfall, enhance your kiosks and displays, bring attention from the floor with dynamic content, or attract customers' attention through a unified audio branding experience – sound is an invaluable tool.